There are two stages of response when facing widespread disasters like earthquakes, wildfires or pandemics: relief and recovery.
Media outlets capture the drama of “relief” – images of brave firefighters battling flames in the smoldering ruins of a town, or the National Guard delivering supplies to afflicted citizens. Often, the majority of emergency resources are dedicated to these early, high-profile efforts – the most visible way for a government to demonstrate its commitment to helping citizens.
But what happens after the floodwaters recede, the fires are put out or the treatment is found? This is the second stage of fighting a disaster: the recovery phase. This is the long-term rebuilding and strengthening of communities, helping residents regain a sense of stability and security. For example, in the years after the 1992 Northridge earthquake in southern California, Los Angeles County has bolstered building codes and undertaken widespread retrofitting projects to help ensure residents’ homes will withstand future quakes.
With no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, we must call on our leaders to think about what will happen five, 10, 20 years down the line. And as they develop the plan, we must demand that it is framed around racial equity.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is the biggest failure of implementing a long-term recovery plan and a prime example of what happens when racial justice is left out of the equation. In certain parts of New Orleans the question of what happens when the floodwaters recede was left unanswered – namely, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. In the Lower Ninth Ward, the historic heart of New Orleans’ Black community, recovery efforts were forgotten while affluent neighborhoods received a majority of the help. The result? The 2000 Census listed approximately 14,000 people living in the Lower Ninth Ward. As of 2010, that number had dropped to 2,842 people.
We can take these facts and experiences of a failed recovery effort and apply them to the crisis we currently face. In Los Angeles, the current state of housing protections could very well become the failed recovery efforts which were seen at the time of Hurricane Katrina. For example, if a renter cannot pay their rent due to loss of income due to COVID-19, they will be required to pay back their back-rent within one year. How are people expected to pay double rent when many were paying well over 30% of their income in rent even before the pandemic? This could create an unprecedented amount of debt for renters, which will inevitably lead to the forced evictions of millions of Angelenos and the eventual bankruptcy of many small “mom and pop” landlords.
As leaders grapple with how to allocate funds to support an equitable and sustainable path to recovery, an answer may lie in another crisis currently roiling American society.
It is increasingly apparent that defunding the police is one of the most important ways of achieving housing justice for renters across Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Police Department has an established budget of over $1.1 billion dollars and uses large portions of the city’s General Fund which is totaled at over $6 billion dollars. Local elected officials have historically chosen to expand aggressive policing rather than fund much-needed community services. The Housing and Community Investment Department – which provides housing inspections to prevent slum conditions and education for tenants who are being illegally harassed or evicted by landlords – received just $89 million dollars. Even more worrying, the Emergency Management Department, which designs and executes plans to address disasters, such as a pandemic, received a meager $1.284 million dollars for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
Defunding the police will be the beginning of a successful long-term disaster recovery timeline that dovetails with the efforts of the ongoing racial justice movement toward rebuilding healthier, stronger communities. We must demand the reorganization of money which is already in the hands of the government. We don’t need militarized police forces to see us through this challenge; we need rent relief, supplemental income and healthcare access.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the deep roots of inequity in this country, impacting most lethally communities of color. To work toward healing from that, our recovery plan must be centered in racial justice.